CONYERS, Ga. — Hot off a seven-game win streak, and playing the No. 6 Newton Rams at home, the Rockdale County Bulldogs had a perfect recipe for an upset in place Friday night.
However, the aggressiveness of the Rams’ defense in several spots, combined with hot shooting from several players, was enough to shut down the Bulldogs’ efforts as the Rams won their second region game of the season by a final tally of 73-52.
Dre Butler was the leading scorer for Newton with 21 points and six rebounds, while Ashton Hagans finished with 19 points, 14 assists, eight rebounds and four steals, as Newton 12-3, 2-1 in Region 8-AAAAAAA) won its second straight region contest.
With a large, rowdy crowd packed out in the Bulldogs gym, the game started with an immediate 3-pointer from Rockdale’s Chris King which prompted an eruption from the stands on the home side.
Newton junior guard Tyrese Brown answered with a trey of his own, which generated a counter-eruption from the visiting side fans.
This back and forth nature of game and atmosphere continued throughout the first quarter which ended with a 22-16 lead for the Rams.
Newton wouldn’t surrender the lead for the remainder of the game, and actually began to substantially separate itself from Rockdale in the second quarter.
The Bulldogs could only muster seven points in the second quarter, thanks to a stingy Rams defense. That helped increase the deficit by 10 points as the Rams entered the locker room with a 33-23 hafltime lead.
“Overall, I thought we contested really well,” Newton head coach Rick Rasmussen said. “We guarded (Rockdale’s) Sayvon Traylor really well. He’s been scoring 25 and 30 on a lot of people, but he took a lot of forced shots because Ashton and others were guarding him really well.”
Coming out of the half, Hagans, who only had five points in the first half, added eight points in the third quarter to help the Rams extend their lead to 14 points after three.
Despite still finishing with 19 points, the recent UGA commit’s performance was more notable for the way he moved the ball around to his fellow teammates, chalking up several assists.
“He did a great job distributing, especially when trying to find Tyrese Brown,” Rasmussen said. “We told Ashton to keep being aggressive and finding the free throw line, which he did a lot in the third quarter, and then after that incredible dunk down the middle, the crowd kind of deflated.”
That deflated feeling was exactly what filled the air on the Rams’ side as Newton continued its aggressiveness well into the fourth quarter. The Bulldogs could find no answer for keeping Newton’s speed in transition and defense, and as a result, Rockdale began errantly forcing 3-point shots and bad passes.
Rasmussen noted that the fast pace and dominant play were a complete team effort, but the defensive performance was particularly important.
“The runs we go on are just as much from a great defensive effort as they are from exploding on offense,” he said. “We’ve kind of recommitted to defense after our second loss. We had two one-point losses early in the season, and we really didn’t think we played well defensively in either one. We played 65 to 70 percent of this game how we want to be defensively, and I think that makes us a better team.”
Newton followed up Friday’s win with another big victory against a rival when it took care of business against Eastside Saturday, defeating the Eagles 75-47 in a game that was played at Alcovy High’s gym.
In that game, Hagans came up two rebounds shy of a triple double as he paced Newton with a 10 points, 13 assists and eight boards, while Dre Butler added 18 points and another six rebounds and Juwan Johnson and Tyrease Brown chipped in with 11 and 10 points respectively.
Despite the wins, Rasmussen knows there are plenty of challenges ahead, and that his team must maintain consistent dominance if it wants to improve on last seasons success.
“We want to be more consistent, especially on defense,” he said. “We don’t want to get complacent. Grayson is our one region loss by one point, but we want to continue to play well and keep on rolling. We have a really hard January schedule, and at the end of this thing, we host the region tournament, and we want to win our third region championship in a row.”
And while those games don’t seem too far away, he continues to remind his players that it is about one game at a time.
“The upcoming Shiloh game (Tuesday night) is extremely important,” he said. “They beat us at home last year and that was our only region loss. Just take it one game at a time and continue to get better, because at the end of the year, all of our habits are going to come out in these games, so we want to have good habits in those important games.”